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How My Two-Dimensional View of My Uncle Eph Changed After His Suicide

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Before it all, I was oblivious to the depth of pain a human being could endure every day of their life. Before I lost someone to depression, I never really understood what depression was. The personal experience I had with depression and ultimately, a suicide, truly affected my outlook on life and on those burdened with emotional struggle. Ephraim, or Uncle Eph to me, struggled with bipolar disorder, a misunderstood form of depression on the spectrum of mood disorders.

From as early as I can remember, walking into my grandparents’ house, I never knew which side of Ephraim I would see that day. I have happy memories of his good days when he would teach me to tie dye or show me all of his progressing horticulture projects and terrarium plants, but I also have memories of the days when he wouldn’t leave the basement and the floor boards reverberated with his tragic sobs. He could either be as quick as a whip and the life of the party, or lie in bed, motionless for days as if in a catatonic state.

I remember always wondering why he couldn’t just force himself to get out of bed, just change his mood. Unshaved, overweight, with only the light of his cigarette butt glowing in his dark room to let you know someone was alive inside his cave of a room. When I think back, I’m ashamed I judged him solely on his external appearance.

The mental illness, from which he struggled with, affected more than just himself. It took a toll on my grandparents, who loved and cared for him endlessly. It took a toll on my whole family, causing never-ending drama about how to “handle” him and what to do. Not one of us truly understood what he was feeling or how he was feeling, but particularly not my mom.

My mom is a good person. Like many people, she compares herself to others based on what she has accomplished. She measures happiness and success by her achievements (titles at work, financial compensation, home ownership and solid bank accounts). Sometimes she would look down on her brother, who changed jobs yearly, with sabbaticals in between them, and had little money of his own.

All she wanted was to see him make an effort, to see him push through his “bad days” and “feelings.”

Sadly, this is how most of the world views mental illness, and for a long time, I was the same way. They always try to say to a person with depression, “snap out of it” or “just get out of bed and do it,” instead of empathizing and trying to feel what they feel right alongside with them. It’s an old mentality, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” It just doesn’t work with people who have these deep, dark emotional struggles.

Uncle Eph eventually got on the right medicines, and he started a second bachelor’s program in nursing and loved it. Yet, one semester before he graduated, his heart was broken when his girlfriend broke up with him, and his bipolar disorder resurrected again with a vengeance.

On October 13, 2015, my uncle died by suicide. It left my family and me personally, reeling from the shock. We all knew life had taken this darker turn for him, but his dying felt as if someone hit me in the face with a baseball bat in the dark. The image of my grandmother grabbing her gut, wailing as if she had been the one fatally injured, is an image burned into my memory.

There was no closure to his death. Instead, it tore open our minds, searching for a reason we could wrap our heads around. It left our bodies aching for one more embrace and souls searching for forgiveness from him for our failures. We have lost one of our members, one of our own. His death was like our family’s own personal earthquake.

Since Ephraim’s death, I have spent hours in reflection. I saw Ephraim two dimensionally. I saw his ragged appearance, and I wrote him off as a failure. Since his death, I have heard the stories of my uncle’s generosity of spirit. I have heard how he brought laughter and comfort to elderly patients coming to the end of their physical life on Earth. He embodied empathy. He could do for others what we could not do for him.

My eyes are now open to the fact that depression is a disease, an illness, just the way physical diseases/illnesses are. We need to treat them as people, struggling from their illness. When we hear the label “mentally ill,” our first instinct is pity. “Poor you,” “Uh-oh,” “Weirdo,” might be the first words that come to mind, followed by casting judgment. We see these people as broken and just in need of mending.

But one in five people bears a form of mental illness. This is a dirty secret that society cannot afford to ignore.

We don’t put pressure on people with physical illnesses to, “Get up! Shake it off! Go to work!” We see their struggle and we encourage them. We wear ribbons and promote awareness. We help them. We show love to them. They often have rallies of people backing them, raising awareness through knots of fabric. Where is Ephraim’s ribbon?

It’s August 2016. The grass is still green on Ephraim’s grave. His headstone is in its place amongst the sea of gray markers. The colorful flag, with a photo printed onto it of Ephraim fishing at the ocean, blows in the breeze defiantly colorful and distracting. It is the only visible reminder of the young man behind the “mental illness.”

Ephraim, your life and your death, have left an indelible mark on my heart. I promise you, I will be forever different because of it.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 12, 2016
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